Team Build

The Artist as Change Agent - A report on Team Build

Everyone is an artist

In a climate of Culture Industries, Social Inclusion and Cultural Diversity there has been a glut of support from the Art Council for artists who work in collaborative or community-based contexts. This has resulted in a perceived dilution of the artistic merit of work of this kind from the 'mainstream' art world. Team Build set out to demonstrate that within and between the stifling dictates from cultural policy, artists are pursuing critical strategies and tactics that provoke questions and stem from a rich historical trajectory in this country.

What happens when an artist is placed (or places themselves) into a 'normal' situation? Removed from the safety and solitude of the studio, they exist as an 'incidental person'. The object and ego removed, projects blur the boundaries of definitions of artist and artwork becoming instead art that is work. Artists adopt tools of collaboration and objectively engage in situations. When this approach inadvertently becomes 'useful' to a specific context (in the case of Team Build, work places) what are the implications for the existence of the work? Is a value judgment made and is it necessary?

As the burgeoning market for fly on the wall television indicates, people enjoy an objective perspective on unfamiliar surroundings. Indeed, objective input can be incredibly powerful. The views of a management consultant entering a work situation are intended to identify problems and to ease and enhance working methods. When an artist becomes involved at such a pragmatic level their objectivity has the advantage of a creative guise. Their marginalisation from the everyday is harnessed. How do they engage with the longevity of their usefulness? What are the outcomes?

Team Build up

Team Build was a two-day event that bought together artists, curators, arts administrators and others to discuss and consider the notion of the artist as an agent for change focusing on questions of art and work, collaboration, participation and use value. The weekend formed the third and final stage of Anna Best's Year of the Artist Media residency at [a-n] magazine.

The weekend was conceived and organised in collaboration by Anna Best and B+B. Team Build offered an opportunity to consider ways in which projects that take place in a micro-context can become meaningful to a wider audience. In a sense, it was a point of closure for Anna's residency. It was also motivated by a desire to form connections and relationships to similar projects in order to develop an ongoing critical framework for practices.

Each participant was invited to present or contribute a project, an issue, a question or a discussion. The responses were presented in various ways throughout the two days in fixed group sessions (or 'alcove sessions'), through open sessions and spontaneous presentations. The structure aimed to reflect and explore the nature of practice and was formed to create a networking event in which experiences could be shared with the aim of finding common ground.

The structure of the event was devised in collaboration with Suzy Adderley, an artist and group facilitator who is interested in community building. It was also extending the first stage of the residency in which Anna took the staff of [a-n] magazine on an away weekend. The weekend was a surprise for the staff and took place at a Team Building centre in Northumberland and incorporated Paint balling, group development exercises, yoga, film workshops and quad biking. These activities were devised by Anna and recorded by the ever-present eye of Anna Laura Lopez de la Torre whose live written commentary resulted in the second stage of the project, the magazine [a-n-n-a].

Anna's project with the magazine inevitably raised questions and issues for the participating staff from [a-n], many of whom are practicing artists. As an artist rather than a trained facilitator, these issues, post-weekend, lay exposed and raw. Anna has described her approach as holding up a mirror to a situation. Her projects produce gestures rather than solutions. Through participation and collaboration, she actively questions and critiques her position, her context and the wider systems representing or defining her role. In the case of her residency at [a-n] she was dealing with a real workplace and collaborating with a group of artists. This necessarily altered the terms of the collaborative process. Away Weekend challenged [a-n] to accept and manage the aftermath of the weekend. Thereby forcing them to examine their expectations and investment in the residency as a whole.

Team Building

Team Build was in a sense our own Away Weekend and we intentionally set out to explore the potential of an intensive group-working environment. Rather than use this to problem solve group relationships or improve managerial strategies as is normally the case, we used this as a methodology to build effective discussion and exchange for an area of art practice that rarely finds an effective space for response and dialogue.

In developing the workshops for Team Build, we used Anna's project as a starting point from which to consider what happens when artists act as agents for change. Key issues emerged through workshop leaders' own experiences and approaches. The topics for these 'alcove sessions' included: Issues of authorship and collaboration and different visibilities between curators and artists by Anna Best; Self-determination, responsibility and the development of possibilities for the artists working in decision-making structures by Maurice O'Connell; Personal and collective motivations of art and artists today, what and who is the 'driver'? by Barbara Steveni.

Spontaneous open sessions and interventions were also initiated and included a session on altruism and the female question by Pope and Guthrie, a fictive problem solving scenario led by Kathrin Böhm and Andreas Lang, a work-map to discuss art as a form of work by Anna Laura Lopez de la Torre and a presentation of approaches to multidisciplinary collaboration by Jon Winet.

The group divided for alcove sessions and presentations and reconvened for feedback, biscuits and housekeeping. It felt an epic task to keep tabs on all of the issues, ideas and questions emerging. Reports were made from some alcove sessions and notes were taken from feedback. However underlying the whole event were questions of why record? Why document? Who will own this moment? How do we overcome the urge to define and pin-down? For the purposes of this report, I have tried to identify responses to some of these questions and in so doing, point to a possible outcome from Team Build.

We don't have the words

Discussion at Team Build kept on returning to a perceived absence of an adequate language to describe and situate current approaches. Carey Young's session argued for the creation of an alternative lexicon for practice. Carey reflected on her own practice, which parodies and performs the rhetoric of corporations. She described her approach as a necessary 'taking-on' of language in order to intervene, insert and exist within alternative structures.

Barnaby Drabble's session focused on potential formats for 'adding value and developing discourse'. However, it was widely acknowledged that an attempt to limit the outcomes of Team Build to one voice would be invalid. Practice is multifarious and the differences should be retained. A manifesto or statement emerging from the group as whole would prevent this. Once a position is self-declared it rapidly loses value and feels inappropriate or inaccurate. Language is key in communicating the diversity and complexity of practice without tying it down to one single tendency or approach.

Stand up for yourself

A keen voice and influential presence at Team Build was found in Barbara Steveni, co-founder of APG (Artists Placement Group) with John Latham and director of O+I (Organisation and Imagination). Barbara presented her work on O+I and APG, two initiatives that have laid down a methodology in which the artist is repositioned in the decision-making process of society. APG established opportunities for artists to work in government offices, corporate head quarters and local council structures. With O+I Barbara has continued to reposition the artist, setting up collaborations with the Department of Culture Media and Sport and the Imperial College amongst many others. For many attending, her story was a new one and the legacy of APG provided a revealing artist-led precursor to policy-led schemes such as Year of the Artist. Barbara was adamant that artists must take control of their potential to change and defended the importance of self-determination arguing that without it, artists remain powerless.

Maurice O'Connell also demonstrated the importance of the artist managing and maintaining a position within complex contexts. Since 1992, Maurice has been on a series of journeys exploring and mapping the possible roles for artists within the infrastructure of our societies. These journeys have included encounters with traditional cultural institutions and events to experiments in education and interventions in central authority and policy providers. Reflecting on his experience, Maurice highlighted the implications of projects that are intended to have a 'use' or pre-determined outcome. Maurice also emphasized that language is a fundamental tool to distinguish practice and confuse expectations.

The second day of Team Build became focused on issues of the afterlife, the crisis of documentation and authorship. Attendees demanded who would pick up the pieces of Team Build? Who will extend or develop the experience? This anxiety to sustain the impact of the event was counteracted by voices that wanted to defend the right to the ephemeral. Wasn't Team Build more about the instantaneous moment and exploration?

It was also acknowledged that Team Build had created a platform for 'the producers'. Where were the voices of the participants? The collaborators? This left us at a distance from the experience of Away Weekend. Is this how it will always be? Is it only through experience that the work is meaningful? Anna welcomes speculation, misunderstandings and questions and often deliberately encourages them through the situations and moments she creates. However, how can we get to a stage where the questions of those actually taking part are heard? Is there a way in which they can become involved and entertained within attempts at critical discourse?

Post Team-Build:

As ever there was a great deal of deliberation and discussion on what Team Build would be, how it would be documented, communicated more widely. There seemed a general sense that the work had been done and that the two-day event could be the starting point for a more expansive project of definition and communication. Looking back, two years down the line, this is evident in the continuing network of practitioners and the development of critical debate – both in the form of official strategies such as the recent Interrupt symposia organised by the Arts Council, to the more 'unofficial' platforms such as B+B on Tour.

The fact that Team Build has not resulted in a publication of fixed document is a credit to the voices of its participants. To have pinned down approaches and created a proposal for change would have limited the possibilities of a critical practice. It would also have denied the specific nature of contexts, strategies and encounters. As Barbara argued, projects should be allowed to remain as happy accidents, creating noise and marks. For their part hosts (commissioners, funders etc.) should be prepared to accept and accommodate unexpected outcomes and informality.

Many key questions and issues remain unresolved. For instance Pope and Guthrie's session sought to investigate the nature of altruism and 'good' work. Where does the instinct come to work with others? What characterises this need and how does this effect the perceived 'quality' of the work? It was also acknowledged that the absence of a supportive discourse is nothing new. Barbara has been battling over visibility and voice for decades and international participants (e.g. Kent Hansen, Denmark) demonstrated that this is not specific to the UK. What was clear was that this needs not become a stumbling block and should instead lead to a new network of support and critical discourse.

Finally it was agreed that sometimes it's good to allow for the temporary to be just that, transient and momentary. As Suzy Adderley said in closing: When it's over, it's over.

© Sarah Carrington - November 2001 (updated February 2004)


Drawing by Jo Roberts. click to see larger picture

click to see larger picture

click to see larger picture

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